“Why are you so scared of lightening Rose?” The nine-year-old version of myself asked as my small arm clutched her aged middle. We formed a singular human mass on the bottom half of my brother’s bunk beds. Each time the storm crackled, Rose’s muscles tensed in swift jolts. Josh lay still, waiting for Rose to relate the reason why we were curled up on this tiny bunk instead of sprawled out on the luxury of my full sized mattress.
Our entangled positioning caused her voice to sound like a muffled, yet audible echo. “Well you see, when I was a very young girl about two or three years old, I came down with scarlet fever. The doctor tied me to a bedpost so that when the delirium of the fever set in, I could thrash without harming myself. The racket of the storms which passed and the frightening outlines of the trees terrified me in those dark moments. I guess it just stuck all these years.”
My young soul had never heard of scarlet fever and couldn’t grasp what it was like to be restrained to a bed, but that night, I lay awake thinking about Rose. My mind raced through thoughts of her life before me and all she had lived through. The steady rhythm of her heartbeat in my frail embrace flooded me with relief. She, an 85-year-old woman and I, a 9 year old girl, would get to spend more time together.
My mother met Rose through a babysitting service when she was pregnant with my older sister. A representative from the agency told her that although Rose was one of the oldest women working for the company, she was great with children and dependable. She was hired the first time they met.
Rose was there for the birth of my sister and brother. She was also the main person taking care of them when my mother was in the hospital for her third delivery. Jenna lived for 10 weeks and died from a rare disease called Rubinstein–Taybia Syndrome. Throughout my mom’s recovery, Rose was there for comfort and support. She too was acquainted with the immeasurable weight of the loss of a child.
By the time I entered the world, Rose was a staple member of our family. She was my best friend and confidant, grandmother and hero, all in one. I’m not sure if it was because I was the youngest, or because Rose and I were just the most compatible, but for whatever reason, we were inseparable for my entire childhood.
Cancer claimed the lives of Rose’s husband and one of her sons after she’d met my mother, but before I was born. I would flip through pictures of Rose’s husband holding my sister and imagine what he was like. I would have given anything to know not only them, but the person Rose had been when they were alive.
Rose also had a grown son and daughter. Both had their own lives, relationships and families. Rose’s children loved her and spent time with her when they could, but there were still many times when Rose was alone and lonely. On these nights, she would come over just to spend time with us. Our house became her second home.
Rose witnessed every important milestone of our childhoods. She would attend swim meets, dance recitals and birthday parties. She was a full blooded Italian Catholic, but never made us feel that our Jewish traditions were any less important than her faith. She would be present at every Jewish holiday and even had her own candle at my Bat Mitzvah. We all used to joke with much truth behind the banter that we were Rose’s adopted family. The love of our family kept her motivated while the love she gave in return fulfilled our lives. When my parents got divorced it seemed like Rose’s relationship with each member of my family was part of the glue which held us all together.
Every Thursday and quite often several other days a week, Rose would come spend the day and night at our house. For years I would look forward to Thursdays. On those days, I would sprint off the bus to ring my doorbell. I remember feeling a surge of calm and reassurance as her slouched silhouette approached the dusted glass. I would give her a hug, set my backpack down and eat whatever little snack she’d prepared. Then we would take a long stroll around the neighborhood (weather permitting of course). These walks were a time for her and I to catch up, to talk about how nice it was outside and how my days were at school.
Later in the evenings, after Rose and I had both taken short naps on the perpendicular couches in my den and had eaten a dinner of one of her homemade masterpieces, I would leave for dance class. I had been dancing since I was a toddler and loved it more than anything, yet leaving Rose alone in my large house for hours at a time was never easy. I worried about her in my empty house as much as she worried about me getting home in the dark (driving at night was another one of Rose’s many fears). As my carpool rolled up to the front of my house, Rose would be pacing at the other end of the door in one of her long nightgowns. Her hair would be in curlers and hidden under a nightcap she deemed her “cupilini.” Even though she didn’t vocalize it, each time I looked into her eyes and saw the weight of worry let up on them, I could tell how actual her relief was.
The day I found out Rose’s only daughter had been diagnosed with lung cancer was the same day as my cousin’s birthday party. My mother thought I had a right to know, so she told me in the car on the way. I didn’t even make it through an hour of the celebration before breaking down and needing to be picked back up. I felt Rose’s pain for her daughter more than any emotion I had so far encountered. I cursed life for being unfair. Hadn’t this woman gone through enough? Didn’t she deserve some kind of break? I didn’t yet understand the unyielding nature of the world.
For the next several years, Barbara fought with Rose beside her. They participated in walks and press releases. There were organizations started for her cause and awareness spread. Everyone who knew this woman came together to support her. Sometimes when I slept at Rose’s house, I would catch her on her knees in the guest bedroom, a tiny prayer book sprawled out in her shaking hands. I would ask her what she was doing and she would say, “Everything I can to help my Barbara.” Many times I would sit beside her and read some prayers aloud with her. If Rose was doing everything she could to help Barbara, I wanted to do everything I could too.
The sicker Barbara became, the more time Rose spent by her side. She still came to our house every Thursday, however, the days in between were spent with one of my parents or another babysitter. Rose was still her old lively self, with just a few occasional slips of pain revealing themselves in her worried eyes. I knew her well enough to know she wasn’t okay, but all I could do was hold her hand, pray with her and hope with her.
When a minor advance in Barbara’s condition occurred, Rose and I would be loquacious and energized. We would laugh and smile as much as we ever did. In these times it felt like Barbara wasn’t sick, just her and I spending time together like we had done for so many years passed.
On the days when Rose would get disheartening news, the energy in the room would shift. She and I wouldn’t speak much. We took a silent comfort in each other’s company. I would do homework and Rose would do laundry or make dinner. We never had to explain our silence. We understood each other.
I began to identify Barbara, the woman I had known by her beautiful curly long locks as a fighter, a heroin. The harder Barbara fought, the more she represented true human strength to my young eyes. I only saw her a few times while she was sick, but Rose’s animated updates about “how hard her Barbara was fighting” kept me clinging to the hope that there was no way cancer would kill her. In my mind, Barbara was the superhero and cancer, the evil villain. The superhero never loses. If everyone, including Barbara, was trying so hard it had to mean something right?
On December 5th 2004 Barbara’s struggle came to an end. The wake was the first time I saw Rose after the passing. I was thirteen and it was the first one I had been to. Rose was wearing a black dress and jacket. She looked tiny under all the dark layers. Her eyes met mine from across the room and her face lit up for just a moment before the awareness of her grief made it hollower than before.
She gave me a distant hug and said, “Oh Lindsay. I’m so glad you came.” The words “of course” got caught in my throat and my cheeks became wet with tears. I couldn’t breathe. How could such a beautiful woman be subject to so much loss? And here after everything, she was thanking me for coming to the wake. I felt so helpless, like no matter how much I loved Rose, I was powerless to the ruthless hands of fate.
Two long weeks passed before she came over. For the most part, we both did our best to stick to our routine and act as if nothing had changed. We still slept in the same bed and spent Thursdays together just like old times, but we were changing at a rapid pace. Rose became more protective over me and more cautious of my every move. I would have one of my friends over and Rose would forbid us from playing outside. I was no longer a baby or even a child anymore. My body and my mind were on the brink of adulthood and I was convinced I needed more space.
Even though I knew of Rose’s insurmountable grief, I wasn’t mature enough to grasp it. The more she treated me like the child I wasn’t, the more I resented her. We began to bicker with each other often, something that seldom occurred prior to Barbara’s death. I would get so frustrated that I would tell her to leave me alone or call my mom to complain. Our relationship, one that had always relied on its balance and simplicity, was shifting. I would never again be a child and Barbara would never again be alive.
Often times, it’s not the biggest moments in life which pierce our souls; it is those simple details that make us recognize just how much we’ve lost. The moment I realized Rose had changed forever wasn’t during Barbara’s wake, or the funeral, or even during one of her fearful fits. It was on a night when she was preparing her famous sauce.
Rose was a phenomenal cook and her marinara sauce was a popular amongst the members of my family. I had eaten this sauce hundreds of times and every bite tasted as good as good as the first. The sauce or as Rose called it “gravy” was never bland or over spiced. It was the perfect concoction of ingredients that only Rose knew of, served in the perfect portion with fresh grated cheese on top. The Thursday I realized I was losing my best friend, the sauce was full of water and tasted nothing like the comfort dish I loved. This simple notion, that Rose couldn’t make her sauce anymore, broke my heart. As I ate the meal and looked over at my friend, I knew I would never get her back.
A few months after that night, my mom sat me down and told me Rose was being relocated to a nursing home. I never felt so much like a child. There I was, being told the tragic fate of a person who meant the world to me and I was expected to just accept it. My mom explained that Rose had given her house to her son and he had sold it. With her increasing paranoia and confusion, he didn’t have the time to take care of her. He considered bringing in a visiting nurse, but the finances were more than he could afford.
I was told that every alternate solution had already been addressed. Fury rose in my chest. Rose had been my biggest support since I could remember. Every time I had a fight with my parents, or siblings, or had a bad day at school, I turned to her. Now in her weakest moment, I was supposed to just let them take her? Let her live in a facility where she would have no freedom, no control over her own life? I was old enough to realize what kind of environment she would be living in. It was sad enough to bring tears to my eyes at any moment during the day.
I started lashing out at my parents, blaming them for the relocation. In my heart I knew that it wasn’t their fault, but I just couldn’t believe there was nothing we could do. I would go on long emotional rants about how much Rose had done for our family and beg everyone to help her. After a week or two of these tirades, the same inevitable conclusion was met: Rose was going to a nursing home and there was nothing my family or anyone could do about it.
Rose’s last visit took place in our new town house. She had been a part of our old house since the day it was built and it was only fitting that to christen our new place, she come over and bring some of her warm energy into our foreign home. My mom and I drove to pick her up and she was more removed than I had ever seen her. I thought introducing her to our new dog Casey might cheer her up, but Rose didn’t show any interest. She just sat there, at our new kitchen table, hunched over and rubbing her thumbs together. I knew how scared she was because I was too. My mom came in the room and said something to her like “Rose you are always welcome at this house. You know that right? I expect to see you here on Thursday nights.” I don’t think either of us was aware that this was the last time we would ever see her outside of the Care One in Jackson. Rose was forced to move a few short days after the first and last time she had been in our new home. I was fifteen.
The first few times I visited her were the hardest. I couldn’t even make it through a minute without crying. I looked around at the women nursing plastic babies and the men who mumbled to themselves in slews of declarations only they could understand. I felt with every ounce of certainty that Rose didn’t belong in a place like this, but she would always tell us she was fine and wanted to talk only about our lives.
In these early months of her time at Care One, Rose’s disorientation would seep out in subtle ways. We would be having normal conversations about my brother or sister and out of nowhere Rose would say, “You can stay for dinner if you’d like. Let’s go downstairs and I’ll fix ya something to eat.” I wouldn’t remind her of where we were. Instead, I would play along and say, “Sure Rose anything you want to make.”
My mom and I would sometimes take her out to lunch. She was more herself in our car going through the Burger King drive through than she was for months at a time in the nursing home. Though the last time we took her out, she was anxious and kept begging my mom to take her back.
She said things like, “It’s getting late and I really do have to go home and feed the kids.” Up until this point, I had tried to go along with whatever Rose was saying. I didn’t want her to be aware of where she was almost as much as I didn’t want her to be there.
This time though, I couldn’t play along. I looked into her eyes with a pleading stare and said: “Rose, you’re here with me and my mom. You love us. Why would you want to go back there?” When I saw the worry in her soul projected across the sunken lines of her face, I knew that our communication was another intangible lost along the path of change.
Even though we couldn’t take her out anymore, I would still go visit. During the last visit before I left for college, Rose asked me ten times in a row if I had a boyfriend. No matter what answer I would give her, she would say, “Oh that’s nice. Make sure he treats you nice.” That’s a lesson that Rose had been instilling in me since I was a young girl. Make sure you find a nice boy or I’ll have something to say to him. I was married to my Joe for a long time and he treated me like a queen.
Although I didn’t care for the repetition, it was nice to see there were some characteristics left still unique to Rose. I remember thinking on that last visit before I left, how I just couldn’t believe the proximity to Rose had no weight whatsoever on where I went to college.
I still visit Rose every time I come home from Orlando. She doesn’t know who I am, but she knows she loves me. That is enough because it has to be. She still smiles every time I hold her hand and tells me she loves me too when I say it first.
I’ll say “Rose do you remember me? Do you remember little Lindsay, your best friend? You helped raise me.”
She’ll say “Yes. Little Lindsay” in a voice that reveals she doesn’t.
Then I’ll push her wheel chair outside, and as the sun shines on her benevolent face she’ll say, “It’s a lovely day out, isn’t it?”
I wrote this piece a year ago and the memories of Rose still visit me on a daily basis. There are things I will never forget: the way she smelled of Dove soap and hair spray, the blue dotted sheets she kept over the seats of her car and the way she loved me with all of her heart. I now babysit for a four year old named Rosie and on the way to pick her up at school two days ago, my GPS took me right past Rose’s house. I hadn’t been there since she’d moved and it prompted me to sit and edit. This is for you Rose. I’ll cherish our friendship for as long as I live.